Thinking About Practice, Part One

Thinking About Practice; Practice Is About Thinking

Today I inaugurate a multi-part exploration of something musicians do every day, but may take for granted: practice. Much of what is written about practice is either anecdotal, overly prescriptive, or does not take advantage of research in neurology, physiology, or psychology.

An example of writing that is mainly anecdotal can be found in this post from 2009 on establishing good practice habits. Although it’s written primarily in the second person plural, it documents what the author has discovered that works for himself. This blog post, from The Bulletproof Musician, after decrying mindless practice procedures, offers advice that is prescriptive, i.e., it sets out a template of what to do and what not to do. Writings such as this one on perfect practice, offer a combination of the two.

(Despite my ambivalence about anecdotal or prescriptive writings about practice, I did love the scene in Tous les Matins du Monde from 1991 in which a young Marin Marais crawled under the practice hut of the grief-stricken and reclusive Sainte Colombe to divine the latter’s secrets of playing the viola da gamba. Marais, however, would only have been able to learn what Saint Colombe was doing and neither how nor why. Nonetheless, it would have been fascinating to have been an invisible observer of the practice sessions of Giuliani, Sor, Tárrega, Barrios Mangoré, and others.)

There’s nothing wrong with the above writings, but they don’t go far or deep enough. The authors’ experiences may be aligned with what a student needs, but they probably aren’t. What is needed more than specific recommendations from established artists or other thoughtful professionals, is guidance in helping guitar students apply critical thinking skills to fashion practice sessions that will help them quickly recognize and solve problems. Once this is done, they can move on to the fulfilling work of creating and realizing a musical vision for a work and further develop their artistic voice. But what if a student doesn’t realize that’s the purpose of practice?

Stuart Isacoff, writing for the The Wall Street Journal, suggests that musicians today are trained to favor impersonalization over interpretation.1 He laments that musicians’ preoccupation with Urtext editions and an “Urtext worldview,” sanitizes and objectifies the music, which is “a danger when a document is mistaken for the embodiment of a living tradition.”2

But Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924) wrote about this in 1911 in his Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music. As I wrote in a post on Bach, Busoni, and the Chaconne in 2009 (and which I plan to reprise and update here) on my Pristine Madness blog: “Busoni was concerned that the musical ‘lawgivers’ (his term) were now requiring performers to reproduce the rigidity of the signs. The more closely they did so, complained Busoni, the closer performers were convinced they could come to perfection. Busoni maintained that performers were obligated to use their own inspiration to turn the rigid signs back into emotion and to make the work manifest. This was the essence of creativity in performance: What the composer’s inspiration necessarily loses through notation, his interpreter should restore by his own.”

This is important because wherever we think we’re heading with our performances—a literal and impersonal approach, a personal and interpretive approach, or a literal and impersonal approach that we think is personal and interpretive—will create some default assumptions about how we are to get there.

Our default assumptions about practice—these are assumptions we have learned or made up—remain invisible and unquestioned until a teacher, or some other influence, helps us pierce the veil of unknowing. Faulty assumptions about what to do and how to proceed can sneak into our work without our awareness and become habit.3 One of the most common ways this happens is when a directive is mistaken for, is elevated to, or is presented as a principle, which which I’ll explore next time.


Thinking About Practice, Part Two: Principles or Directives?

Thinking About Practice, Part Three: Dagobah and East Coker

Thinking About Practice, Part Four: Practice By Design or Waste Your Time

Thinking About Practice: Part Five: Reducing Music to Technique: Intelligent Bunglers and Brainless Acrobats


  1. Stuart Isacoff, “Impersonation Instead of Interpretation,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 10, 2014.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Because of the ubiquity of seeing and hearing the results of someone’s practice, students are sometimes overly focused on the product without an understanding of how to get there. Who could ever infer the existence of a pig from seeing a sausage?